Presentation World

The other day I was talking to one of my children about some of the problems high school students have in applying and getting into the better colleges. While I’d heard some of this from what my wife the college professor has told me, it’s clear that times have definitely changed from when we applied for college. Back then, anyone who had a straight A average, near perfect SAT scores, was a National Merit Scholar, and had a range of other activities or outstanding achievement in one particular field, often athletics of some sort, could usually get into one of the more demanding colleges. Today, that simply isn’t enough.

Without perfect or near perfect scores on advanced math or science courses, or other demanding subjects, and test scores to back those up, without intellectually demanding outside activities, and without an overall perfect presentation on essays and questionnaires, the “merely” highly intelligent student will have a hard time impressing elite schools.

But, as I thought it over, I realized the college-seeking- and-acceptance process was just another facet of the “brave new world” in which those in the high-tech cultures of the world live. No longer is great expertise in a field – any field – enough for success. Expertise must be presented expertly and with great appeal, often with great visual appearance as well. And, in too many cases, the visual and personal appeal greatly outweigh the expertise.

My wife has seen this transformation in the world of opera. Once, a singer with a great voice and less than great physical beauty could be a star – but there hasn’t been a star diva who isn’t also close to a beauty in the last two decades, and few of the recent divas have lasted all that long compared to their predecessors.

In the popular music area, I don’t doubt that Taylor Swift can sing; but there are many singers who sing as well or better, and some of them are doubtless as attractive as Swift. What they don’t have is the strength of overall presentation.

And sometimes, the presentation is so appealing that no one seems to notice its flaws, as in the crypto-currency fraud perpetrated by Sam Bankman-Fried with his FTX cryptocurrency exchange.

Donald Trump is an outstanding performance and presentation artist, so much so that he can get away with lies, crimes, and criminal charges, although he’s done far less constructively than Joe Biden. Despite Biden’s greater achievements and lack of documented evidence of wrongdoing, almost half the USA prefers the Trump presentation to the Biden presentation.

So, I have to ask, “How’s this Presentation World thing working out for you?”

6 thoughts on “Presentation World”

  1. KTL says:

    Hmmmm, I’m not sure….but. There is a factor on numbers here perhaps? Historical college enrollment went up in the US A LOT in the years between 1970 and 2010 and then leveled off.

    So, if I compare my undergrad years in the 70s to today there were less than half the number of competing students. Who knows how many competing applicants there were? As you allude to there are other factors too. There are more people in the world and the number of people at the top end of that distribution are greater now than ‘back when’. I’m even sure that there will be competition for space in the ground when I pass. Luckily the crematorium has adequate capacity.

    1. I should have included the facts that the U.S. population has almost doubled since 1960 (from 180 million to 336 million people), and while only 8% of the population had a college degree in 1960, 38% percent does now, and 52% of high school graduates enter college. All this makes the competition for anything much more intense, which also makes self-presentation far more important.

      1. KTL says:

        Thanks for those extra bits of information. And yes, I agree with your conclusions about presenting oneself and one’s conclusions/opinions in the best light possible. There are so many really exceptional people in the younger generations. I hope they can solve lots of the problems they will face or that we have left for them.

  2. Hanneke says:

    Does the system of legacy acceptance that many elie colleges practice make a difference in this?
    If more college-age kids have one or two parents with a college degree, and thus get accepted preferentially to their parent’s college, that might leave less free entry spots for those who have to compete for entry on their own merits.
    As historically, studying at elite institutions was mostly done by white men, I’ve heard that the legacy admissions (around 30% of the yearly intake, IIRC in the example I heard of) can skew the present-day intake for young people without that background, make it harder for them to get in by outcompeting everyone else on merits.

    1. Postagoras says:

      Hanneke, the admissions selection process is not exactly transparent. So it’s not clear whether legacy status accepts “unworthy” students, or whether it’s a final criterion to use for all the “worthy” students.

      But Mr. Modesitt’s point, as I see it, is that there is a kind of merit-industrial complex, a process in our society that “adds value” to prospective students, to distinguish them from the vast numbers of applicants to elite institutions.

      Like Mr. Modesitt, I’m dubious about the merit, myself. Especially when well-off parents can afford to have their kid be the orchestra director of the leper colony or some other esoteric accomplishment.

    2. I have no doubt that legacy acceptances have had a significant impact in the past, but more of the elite colleges are doing away with them, and I suspect this trend will continue. Given the extraordinarily high cost of elite colleges, the other question is to what degree this will affect academically outstanding students from middle class backgrounds. Even back when I was in college they were under-represented at elite schools because they couldn’t qualify for significant financial aid and many parents weren’t willing to pay those fees because of the financial impact on the entire family. The reduction in legacy admissions could just result in a different set of students from well-off, non-legacy families being accepted.

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